Colon coming back again

I always go through a post-World Series lull every year, a gradual come-down from the drama and excitement of another season coming to an end.

Thankfully it never lasts long because the Hot Stove immediately starts to simmer, creating an endless supply of rumours and actual moves.

So far we’ve already had several managerial changes (with more to be completed as vacancies are filled), players being traded, potential free agents signing contracts to stay with their current employer and other free agents moving onto the open market ready to see where they may be plying their trade next.

The news I want to concentrate on today was announced on Saturday: the Oakland A’s re-signing starting pitcher Bartolo Colon to a one-year contract.

The move wouldn’t seem a surprise when looking back at his 3.43 ERA in 24 starts for the A’s last season. Colon was a solid, if not spectacular, starting pitcher for Oakland and keeping a guy like that on your roster makes complete sense. Yet, of course, the story here is the main reason why he made his 24th start of the season on 18 August and then didn’t make another.

Colon received a 50-game ban after testing positive for synthetic testosterone.

The A’s decision to bring the player back is interesting in what it says about their view on his reputation and potential future performance.

In reputation terms, the A’s are taking the pragmatic business decision here, as explained by General Manger Billy Beane, that “when he serves his suspension, he’ll have paid his dues as laid down by the labor agreement”. In other words, Beane doesn’t think it’s right to take an additional moral stance and once Colon has paid the prescribed price for his transgression that should be the end of the matter.

That’s the safe, and sensible, way to go. Take a moral stand against one player and you’re leaving yourself open to justifiable cries of hypocrisy. The A’s were happy to sign Manny Ramirez to a minor-league contract last winter (big news at the time for the A’s, which goes to show how low our expectations were and how incredibly they were exceeded) so why shouldn’t they sign Colon?

More to the point, the pragmatic approach appears to be the way the majority of sports fans view the topic. While most fans want to see sports free from drugs and are in favour of significant penalties for those that are caught, it seems to me that the ‘drug cheat’ pantomime villains projected by elements of the press do not reflect the more nuanced response from fans.

When Mark McGwire was announced as the St. Louis Cardinals’ new hitting coach back in October 2009, many words were devoted to explaining how his presence would be a terrible distraction for the team. After the initial, and entirely understandable, media questioning at his first few days in Spring Training were over, McGwire got on with his job and by all accounts has done it very well over the last three seasons. Recent news reports suggest that he will be joining the Dodgers this offseason.

Maybe years of being let down by heroes has created a resigned weariness to it all or maybe fans are more ready to accept that there are people that cheat (i.e. try to gain an unfair advantage) in many different ways in sport, as they do in every walk of life (Starbucks avoiding tax, teachers allegedly “fiddling” exam grades etc). That doesn’t make it right, and clearly cheating comes in different levels of severity, but taking too high-and-mighty a view doesn’t help anyone.

Catch them, punish them, and move on.

There are still some cases where a suspension can make most onlookers feel that a career is likely over. When a veteran player nearing the end of his career gets caught, the odds of him returning aren’t great because the assumption will be that he needed to take drugs to stave off the effects of Father Time.

Bartolo Colon seemed to be an extreme example of this. His career had appeared to be over after he pitched in just 19 games combined during 2008 and 2009 and then sat out the entirety of the 2010 season. Few gave him much of a chance of making the Yankees’ Major League roster when they signed the 38 year old to a Minor League contract prior to the 2011 season, but he surprised everybody by pitching well for the Bronx Bombers and then carried on that form with the A’s in the season just gone.

The announcement of Colon’s suspension was taken as a ‘light bulb’ moment for many, including the Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman. “In Bartolo’s case”, he said, “as well as he has done last year as well through this year, at his age, after coming back from that surgery, makes you scratch your head”. The implication was clear: Colon’s comeback didn’t make much sense until he failed a drug test.

But that’s the most interesting part of the A’s re-signing him.

Would Oakland be bringing Colon back if they thought that his performances over the last two seasons were heavily influenced by illegal means? If the answer is no, which you would have to guess it would be considering the frequency with which he’ll be tested next season as a first-time offender, then maybe the A’s aren’t quite so convinced that his comeback was the product of illegal help.

Which would call into question precisely how ‘performance-enhancing’ the drugs were and, indeed, whether anyone – including Colon himself – can ever really know.

 

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